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History of Korean Ceramics - 4

Privatization of Bunwon and Changes in Traditional Ceramic Production

The number of ceramic utensils used for royal ceremonies greatly increased as they were hosted more frequently after the 19th century. In addition, ceramic products were stolen in the process of being moved to Hanyang as in-kind tax, due to laxity of the tax collection and transportation system. Those changes resulted in increase in the production volume at Bunwon over a certain level. As ordinary people came to have a greater preference for ceramics produced by Bunwon following the development of the commodity economy and increase in private kilns, while profits accumulated from ceramics products also increased, ceramic shops opened all over the peninsula. The ceramic tableware produced at Bunwon that had been limited to use by the privileged class including kings and royal family members in principle came to be sold at markets, making anyone who could afford it able to use them. In 1883, the royal palace implemented restructuring of the ceramics industry, to permit private production of Bunwon ceramics. Then, it established a ceramics company and newly appointed 12 official royal merchants for the supply of ceramics to the royal palace. The 12 royal merchants took charge of the operation of Bunwon and supervised the delivery of ceramics products to the royal palace and their sales on the market.

The royal merchants took charge of operating Bunwon after the permission of private ceramics production in 1883 when the accumulated unpaid amount from the royal palace was incurring much loss to them. However, they were able to offset the loss with the profits from the market sales. While ceramics were sold nationwide, the largest market for them was Jongno market in downtown Hanyang. Bunwon, operated by royal merchants, was given the exclusive privilege of ceramics sales on the markets in the capital and Gyeonggi-do in return for the delivery of ceramics to the royal palace and government agencies, as well as the privilege of cracking down on unauthorized sales of ceramics. They also put pressure on other merchants in order to prevent the sales of ceramics imported from foreign countries including Japan in the markets of Hanyang. However, by the year 1894, profitability of ceramics sales deteriorated and debts continued to increase, becoming the fundamental obstacle for Bunwon's transformation into a modern company. Eventually, Bunwon came to be operated in the form of a company in 1897 by those who owned capital.

The thickness of white porcelains produced by Bunwon increased by the end of the 19th century, while bold, dynamic, or unconventional designs such as the ten traditional Symbols of Longevity, fish, lotus ponds, clouds and cranes, water plants, and other plants were applied to them. Blue and white porcelains and copper-painted porcelains increased, along with white porcelain pieces richly decorated in both blue and copper painting. Furthermore, stationery items such as water droppers modeled after haetae (mythical unicorn lions), peaches, or toads and pencil cases made to imitate the texture of wood or stone were manufactured in at large volumes. Tableware in angular shapes was manufactured in a large volume, too, as the techniques became more advanced. Their decorativeness stands out, with designs put on the entire surface. Such a change is thought to have been induced by the spread of the demand for ceramics to ordinary people and introduction of diverse trends from overseas.
Modern Arita Ware (left), Modern Satsuma Ware (right)
Earth is the most long-used and familiar craft material for all of humanity. The Korean Peninsula is home to a time-honored history of ceramics, comparable even to that of China. The very basis for Korean ceramics used in the lives of its people has been earthenware, from the pre-historic times to today. Even though earthenware is not as beautiful as snow-white white porcelain, it has always been there throughout the entire process of Korean people's life from birth to death. As such, earthenware can be deemed as a symbol of human being's conformity to the natural journey of life from birth to death. The quality of earthenware was diversified in Korea until the end of the 9th century, although of course, there existed differences in the quality and form of earthenware according to their firing temperature, glazing, and usage. In these days, it still had maintained a mutually complementary relationship with metalware and woodenware. Over the period of the Three Kingdoms and Unified Silla, newly-introduced Chinese celadon and white porcelain began to be used on the Korean Peninsula, leading to the diversification between high and low quality ceramics. Such a change in the ceramics environment became the catalyst for the domestic manufacturing of celadon and white porcelain.

Korea had sufficient technical proficiency for the production of ceramics, but its development languished behind China. By the beginning of Goryeo, demand for diverse ceramics for the new dynasty increased, and ceramics techniques introduced from China advanced the domestic production of celadon and white porcelains in Korea.

Celadon began to be produced in earnest from around the 10th century, mostly in the mid-west coastal region on the Korean Peninsula. By the 11th century, which was the time of full-fledged advancement of celadon, the quality, shape, and designs put on the surface were stabilized. By the 12th century, unique characteristics of Goryeo celadon appeared based on the technical skills accumulated by then. In other words, celadon had already been used for the daily lives of people by that time and artisans began to create new forms unique to ceramics by actively borrowing and applying the formative and functional advantages of past kinds of earthenware or metalware. The formative art of ceramics further advanced, as diverse decorative techniques such as inlaying, iron underglazing, openwork, and relief were newly developed. Goryeo's jade-green celadon and inlaying technique were excellent, even when compared to China's ceramics techniques of the same era. Over the Goryeo period,, the nature and usage of ceramics were expanded, going beyond just use for eating and drinking. They came to be used as interior decoration goods, utensils for daily life, and construction materials.

From the era of the Joseon Dynasty, white porcelain began to be used exclusively at the royal palace, and the workshop for royal white porcelain called Bunwon was operated in an area of Gwangju in Gyeonggi-do from the late 15th century. As Saongwon was a department at the royal palace that was in charge of king's meals and all the foods served at banquets hosted at the royal palace, it took the responsibility of supervising the royal ceramics workshop Bunwon to fulfill their duty. As such, Bunwon under Saongwon was a workshop of producing ceramics to be used at the royal palace and government agencies and it was run until the end of the Joseon Dynasty in the 19th century. While the focus of ceramics manufacturing at Bunwon was plain white porcelains, white porcelains decorated in the inlaying, engraving, iron-painting, openwork, and relief techniques were produced as well. Notably, blue and white porcelains enjoyed great popularity over the longest period of time from the early period until the last moments of Joseon.

The official royal ceramics production system introduced in the 15th century was maintained until Bunwon's privatization in the 19th century. Even though some white porcelains were manufactured to be sold to ordinary people for the sake of potters' livelihoods or for fulfilling the increasing demand for top-class white porcelains for people, ceramics production was basically under the control of the royal palace for more than 400 years, as the central government was strong-willed for the maintenance of Joseon's Confucian order that was expressed through ceramics.

The color, size, and design of white porcelains were limited according to the nature of occasions in which they were used, including rituals, funerals, banquets, and congratulatory ceremonies. While diverse decorative techniques including blue and white coloring were used for white porcelains, the endeavor to stay within the basic principle of pursuing Confucian order and frugality was maintained. That is why the advancement of Joseon's ceramics was headed into a new direction distinct from China and Japan, where colored ceramics became mainstream after their commercial success. Joseon's social institution and conservativeness were materialized in the snow-white color of white porcelains decorated with solid-colored designs, creating the unique beauty of Joseon's white porcelains distinguished from those of China and Japan.
Shrine that honors Sam-pyeong Yi, in Arita, Japan

Infokorea 2018
Infokorea is Korea introduced a magazine designed for readers with an interest in Korea and other foreign producers textbooks and teachers. Infokorea is the author of textbooks or foreign editors and reference to textbooks, Korea provides the latest information that teachers can use in teaching resources. Infokorea also provides cultural, social and historical topics featured in Korea. The theme of the 2018 issue was History of Korean Ceramics.

Publication | The Academy of Korean Studies

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